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« De Laurentiis pt 1: "Bitter Rice" and the Fellini Years | Main | Podcast: Once Upon a Time ... in Listener Questions »
Monday
Aug052019

Great Moments in Horror Actressing

by Jason Adams

It's hard not to walk out of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood without Sharon Tate on your mind. Whether it's because you thought the film needed more of what Margot Robbie was serving or if like me it's because you thought what Robbie did serve was A+ First Class stuff, the specter of that real woman, rightfully, lords over the entire experience. Sharon Tate only got to make six films before she was murdered, and two of them were horror films -- not an unlikely statistic for any young beautiful actress, but one that's linked itself arm in arm with Tate's fate nonetheless. 

I've never seen her 1967 British occult flick Eye of the Devil, which had her playing a witch opposite David Niven and Deborah Kerr. But I've seen her other horror flick of that same year, Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, more times than I can count, and it's Tate's under-valued performance that I always think of when I think of the film. She's barely in it but she walks away with it -- a pale fire piled in soap bubbles and snow...

Here in the year 2019 it's hard to extricate one's projection of tragedy onto Tate while watching her -- how much is her performance, and how much is our gaze back through those real horrors of 1969? Re-watching the film this past weekend post-OUATIH I think I had the easiest time seeing Tate, really seeing her there as an actress in a role, more than I've ever had, which is maybe the highest possible compliment I can grant Tarantino and Robbie. They blew the dust of myth and horror off of Tate, and showed me her dirty feet so I could see.

We meet Tate's character Sarah early in Vampire Killers -- she is the innocent daughter of the local innkeeper, and it's her kidnapping by the vampire that sets the plot into motion. Sarah's main trait seems to be that she likes to take baths -- she's walked in on mid-bath when we meet her, and while Polanski's peeping on her a bit later in the bubbles is when the dastardly Count absconds with her. And even later still, when we meet up with her once more, it's again in the bath. 

It's an easy lascivious gag fitting with the busty Hammer horror films that Polanski's riffing on, but Tate does, I think, manage to make a lot more of this girl than just a Tex Avery bulging eyeballs gag. And yes it's easy to spin Tate's much discussed real life shyness as being responsible for her surprisingly soft and reserved performance here, except for the fact that Valley of the Dolls came out this same year -- Tate is anything but demure there. She could play other.

The truth is I think Polanski more than anybody tapped into what really made Tate interesting on- and supposedly off-screen, more than a thousand other forgettable actresses who wore low-slung peasant blouses in similar flicks, and it's what Tarantino found too -- Sarah radiates that preternatural sweetness that everybody says Tate really had in spades, and her presence melts the ice off the window-frames of this cold dark place. She's a simple joy against a stark world.

But watch when we meet up with Sarah again in the Count's castle -- Sarah's changed. Vampirism as drug addiction is old hat by now but the notes that Tate plays here, of a girl collapsing into herself, are gorgeously subtle -- a cold lethargy's taken hold; her eyes are slightly sunken, her lips slack. There's something very wrong but it's not quite clear what it is, and Polanski's bumbling on-screen character can't even see it, faced as he is with a beautiful girl in a bubble bath. But the camera definitely sees it, and Tate sells it. Goodness has been poisoned here -- we see the exits closing off right there in her face. The Fearless Vampire Killers is tragedy played as farce, and Sharon Tate managed to haunt its every frame all on her own.

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Reader Comments (4)

I just caught up with "Eye of the Devil" and Tate is actually great in it. At first it seems like she might be there more for her look, but she gives serious intensity and you always feel the purpose behind her line readings. She's better at malevolence than you might expect.

August 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDave S.

I’ve only watched her in The Valley of the Dolls which I loved her in. You’ve inspired me to check out this one next. Rest In Peace Sharon and her unborn son Paul.

August 5, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter?

I've only seen her in The Fearless Vampire Killers as I enjoyed the hell out of that film and I liked what she did in it. Reading that story from her sister about the film touched me as it is proof that Tarantino is doing something right. Even if it's for a short moment in time.

August 5, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I've never been too crazy about The Fearless Vampire Killers to be honest though Sharon is gorgeous in it. But it has been many years since I last saw it so I should give it another look to see if my opinion has changed. I'll have to watch her with your comments in mind.

Eye of the Devil is a strange one but with a top flight cast, David Niven and Deborah Kerr (though it was supposed to be Kim Novak who dropped out mid shoot). Sharon's character is an odd ethereal creature and she conveys that with a quiet stillness.

She didn't have much of a chance to show what she was capable of, her final minutes in Valley of the Dolls are very moving and she has some nice moments in her few other films but her best showcase is the one featured in the Tarantino film-The Wrecking Crew. She shows herself to have been a deft comic actress as the klutzy Freya.

August 5, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

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